The Great Dividing Range runs south from Cape York for 3500 kilometres before ending in the Central West Investigation area where mountain ranges and low hills separate the plains of northern and southwestern Victoria. The public land on these ranges and hills supports most of the native vegetation that remains in this largely cleared landscape and the only mountain forests in western Victoria north of the Otway Ranges. As a result, public land is critical for the industries, recreational pursuits and distinctive natural values that rely on these forests.
Over many tens of thousands of years of occupation, Aboriginal people have developed profound connections with their Country in central west Victoria. Today, Traditional Owners continue this relationship and have a cultural responsibility for Caring for Country that involves protecting land, waterways and natural resources from harm.
There have been many changes in the 30 or more years since the public land use in most of the Central West Investigation area was last assessed by VEAC’s predecessors, the Land Conservation Council and the Environment Conservation Council. Increased recognition and protection of Traditional Owner rights and interests in Crown land in Victoria fundamentally changed following the High Court’s 1992 ‘Mabo’ decision which overturned the concept of terra nullius. Victoria’s increasing population – especially in the outer fringes of metropolitan Melbourne and around some regional centres – will continue to place pressure on public land in the investigation area. While there remain some significant resource uses in the area, the uses of public land have shifted towards recreation and conservation.
- Traditional Owner interests: Traditional Owners expressed a preference for park or reserve categories that protect the cultural and natural values of Country and limit activities with major impacts such as timber harvesting and earth resource extraction, while ensuring that the public has access to public land to enjoy low-impact recreational activities. Some groups emphasised the cultural importance of rivers and requested that headwaters be protected. Traditional Owners want to be respected and resourced to undertake joint management planning and on-ground management activities on Country.
- Ecosystem representation in protected areas: The investigation area is notable for its poor representation of ecosystems in protected areas. The creation of a comprehensive, adequate and representative system of protected areas is a major factor in the development of council’s recommendations. Bioregional Ecological Vegetation Classes (EVCs) are the units for assessing ecosystem representation. Of 107 bioregional EVCs in the investigation area, there are 37 EVCs with significant shortfalls against the nationally agreed targets for protected area representation.
- Threatened species: The investigation area supports a substantial proportion of Victoria’s biodiversity, including approximately 380 rare or threatened species. VEAC commissioned strategic biodiversity values analyses to rank public land areas across the investigation area according to their ability to support rare and threatened species. High-ranking areas are those that most efficiently capture the most suitable habitat for a greater number of rare and threatened species.
- Recreation: Along with nature conservation, recreation – and associated tourism – is now the major use of public land in the Central West Investigation area and recreational use is expected to continue to increase, particularly in the light of population growth in Melbourne and regional cities and towns. Recreational activities such as four wheel driving, trail bike riding, horse riding, mountain bike riding, bushwalking, nature study and prospecting are very popular in many parts of the investigation area. Campers seek a range of opportunities including large open areas and small sites dispersed in the forest, and some people camp with dogs or horses.